Being ‘PC’ is not black or white
Two writers named Johnson and McGonigle from the North Andover based Eagle-Tribune were suspended for three days without pay after exercising their First Amendment right to free speech in a series of inter-office e-mail exchanges.
It began when production editor Donna Green Capodelupo issued a memorandum stating that writers, "Refrain from using race to describe or identify people in crime stories, for example, ‘a black man in a green jacket and baseball cap.’"
She explained, "Unless the rest of the description is detailed enough to be meaningful and distinguishes that person from other members of his or her race, such sketchy descriptions are meaningless, may apply to large numbers of innocent people and tend to stereotype ethnic groups."
Most writers would be happy with this new rule, as other editors often demand silly little things in the stories like details. This takes a lot of time. Besides, readers do not want a writer to paint visual images of people in the stories they are reading. Nor do they deserve a visual image at only 50 cents a copy.
Apparently this bothered editorial page editor Ken Johnson, a beefy white guy with dark hair and Larry King size glasses who responded with a universal e-mail reaching staffers throughout the Tribune Publication chain.
"This strikes me as just to much wrongheaded PC nonsense," he complained. "Are we to write that ‘Three men from east Texas were convicted of dragging James Byrd behind a pickup truck until he was decapitated’ without mentioning that the thugs were white and the victim black?"
His executive editor-in-chief Bill Ketter immediately shot a universal e-mail back stating, "Excellent point, as this was a racially motivated hate crime Gee whiz. Good work. I never thought of that. My bad. So-r-r-r-y."
Just kidding on that last e-mail. Bosses do not do this ever. Best bet is, he read the message and began to check bus schedules to figure which one to toss Johnson under.
This became easier to do as writer Bryan McGonigle, a thin-framed gentleman who stands about 5 feet 3 inches of either Scottish or Irish descent reinforced Johnson’s sentiment by sending his own universal e-mail stating, "Actually, the victim would technically be black and blue and maybe red all over"
Former obituary writer McGonigle did not realize he was writing his own when he added, "And he’d be called cerebrally-challenged American with dramatic skull deficiency. "
Staffers who said they preferred to keep their jobs over being identified in print confirmed that Johnson and McGonicle were suspended for these e-mail exchanges. One corroborated that the content of the e-mails obtained was, "pretty dead on" Another added "There were no other extenuating circumstances that I knew of."
When senior editor Al White was informed of the unnamed sources’ comments he replied, "I do not think you talked to anyone here."
One of the people not talked to said, " I think maybe a simple write-up in their personnel files would have been sufficient."
The second person not talked to added, "I think McGonicle’s e-mail was a little brash but Johnson made a good point."
Johnson, Capodelupo and McGonicle did not feel like talking. Ketter became unavailable.
White suggested that the answers to any question concerning the incident would be found in Ketter’s Sunday’s July 24 editorial as the story had already appeared in a Boston newspaper and was the subject of many Web site discussion groups.
Ketter wrote, "But this story - based entirely on purloined e-mails and unnamed sources - was off the mark. The policy on racial and ethnic identification in not a "new edict." It has been in place for many years and is based what we believe is responsible journalism."
Although it confirms that the e-mails emanated from the Tribune newsroom it does not explain why a 14-year veteran Johnson was so concerned that he wrote an e-mail earning him a three-day suspension.
The defense that "unnamed sources" contributed to the story should not come as a surprise to Ketter considering that he just suspended two writers for internal work-related communications.
As he back-pedaled his bicycle into the Merrimack River Ketter added, "Racial identity should always be included, and to deliberately omit it denies the public critical information … We do … when it is important to understanding the story, such as a racial crime."
He added, "We do avoid mentioning race when the police description is so sketchy is it does not help distinguish the criminal suspect and could apply to many innocent people."
Now his writers understand the policy. It is written in black and white and should be read all over.
Perhaps Ketter should take a look at the original e-mail that initiated this debacle. This might be an excellent time of year to take his own three-day vacation.
Jay Alberts writes from his home in Kingston. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Although I agree that this country has gotten WAY too PC, this is not a First Amendment issue as the first sentence suggests. The First Amendment places restrictions on government and not private industry. Employee speech can be regulated by their employers without infringing on their first amendment rights